[Note: this is another creative writing exercise. And yes, this is a rewrite of this post]
by Kim Chang
special to the New York Times
GROVELAND, CA, Tuesday, May 15, 2014–Henry Harris went three months without running water at his home this winter. He and his neighbors in a newly constructed set of townhomes in Burlingame, who had only moved in the previous August, had to rely on bi-weekly water trucks and rented storage tanks after a vigilante blew up their development’s connection to the city water main. The vigilante, a man named Wendell Krantz, was arrested a week after the incident; Krantz claimed that development where Harris lives is illegal and the homes are stealing water away from the legitimate residents of the city.
Burlingame is a mainly residential town a few miles south of San Francisco, home to a generally upscale populace, a mixture of various nationalities and no particularly ethnic neighborhoods. For several decades the population was fairly stable and remainded between 25 and 28 thousand from 1960-2000. The count soared to over 37,000 by the 2010 Census, however, as developers in the latter part of the decade took advantage of court and legislative decisions to build lucrative housing units such as the Green Hills development where Henry Harris now lives. The decisions that led to this boom were not made by locals, for the most part, and many long-time residents were angry and frustrated by what they saw as outsiders ramming changes through in search of the Almighty Buck.
Wendell Krantz didn’t pop out of nowhere with his water system bombing, though. He was well know to Burlingame City council, police, city workers, and other residents as one of the most vocal opponents of the new housing developments. Burlingame might have some under-utilized land, he would admit, but with San Francisco’ stranglehold on Hetch-Hetchy water there wasn’t enough to justify the permits. Krantz protested on every level after the first few thousand housing units were constructed in 2008 and 2009, he went to zoning board meetings, city council meetings, he organized residents to sue (delaying some construction for 18 months), and vowed too never give up. Finally reduced to writing letters to the editors of area newspapers and running a website detailing all to which he objected, in the last couple of years he was no longer taken seriously. Some, resigned to the new residents and the water restrictions that followed, began to see Krantz as a crank, an odd crackpot who refused to give up on a quest that all saw as over.
Krantz never gave up though, and finally turned to the only means left in his eyes: violent disobedience. He didn’t try to hide his involvement so when the police showed up at his door he went peacefully and detectives found instructions for the bomb in his den and leftover makings in a closet. The last thing Krantz did when he realized the police were at his doorstep was publish a manifesto on his website.
“When a man tries to live a simple life in this modern age,” Krantz wrote, “he has easy access to so much that one can imagine anything is possible. But that is an illusion, fed by the people with gold, who push our desires aside in their lust for more gold. When no matter where one drives in this fine city I have called home all my life and there is no stretch of green longer than a block, and few enough of those, housing (for I will not call them homes) jammed one against the next until the offices and stores begin, and finally we are told there is not enough water to go around, I say enough. Enough! I will not sit by idly watching the pretty but vacuous pictures. I have shown them my answer. Who else will follow?” Wendell Krantz killed himself in prison two days after his arrest.
Water wars are part and parcel of Western history
Burlingame is not the first city to be disrupted violently by struggles over the basic commodity of water. Early in the last century, real estate developers were making outrageous profits in developing Los Angeles until they were stymied by a lack of water. They found an answer, one that lay hundreds of miles north in California, at Mono Lake, and they paid off anyone who’s approval was needed or drove off with violence and threats those that stood in their way and would not take the bribes. The classic Jack Nicholson film Chinatown provides a barely fictionalized view of the struggle. Later in the century, the water fight pit state against state and several of the states against Mexico as arguments raged over who was entitled to how much of the Colorado River’s flow.
Burlingame and many other cities in the Bay Area are dependent on the city of San Francisco and its Public Utilities Commission for their water supply. San Francisco manages a fragile system, patched in the last decade but still vulnerable as it carries water more than 160 miles west from the Sierra Nevada through a complex system of tunnels and pipelines, many of which lack critical back-up capabilities. Over 15 years ago, for almost five years, the other municipalities fought San Francisco for control of the waterworks but were never able to overcome that city’s political clout; Willie Brown, mayor at the time and former Speaker of the California Assembly, was able to outmaneuver his opponents on what he saw as a crucial resource.
Krantz was not the first water protester to turn violent. There were several others who acted before him. Most notorious were the Silicon Valley Tea Party, a group of techno-terrorists who played havoc with the SFPUC’s computer systems for months in 2009 in response to the commission’s edict of rationing supplies to the South Bay. Much more serious damage would have been done by the group if one Party member hadn’t been traced through his personal website, leading to arrests and betrayals that brought the organization down.
Small towns want water too
The Hatfields versus McCoys type of feud went out of style with the dawn of the 20th century or so we all thought. Local conflict is making a comeback, colorful if you don’t live there, as we wend our way through the early part of the 21st. Last week, right here in Groveland the Acorn Block Association was hit with a denial of service attack that took down their security net and opened them up to a physical assualt in which their network server vault was firebombed.
Sheriff Winters has no suspects at this time, officially, and her investigation is ongoing. But with our reporting ears to the ground, though, we hear this may be the work of neighboring Chinese Camp Block Association. Certain elements of the CCBA are up in arms over Acorn plans to divert a stream that currently meanders downhill from Groveland to Chinese Camp and this week’s events were a pointed “Do not go there.” No representative from either group was willing to speak on the attacks although one member of the CCBA did shout at us as we were leaving “Just tell them over in Nut Street that a certain bit of water better keep coming downhill if they know what’s good for them.” Nut Street is the not so affectionate term used by the CCBA for the Acorn’s location.
Details of the denial of service attack are rather sparse although the Acorn security net was offline for about 15 minutes and the network server vault was firebombed less than two minutes into that time. Acorn techs were able to get their backup servers online at the end of that time but expect that replacing and restoring the original vault will take several more days to complete. “In the meanwhile,” said Acorn president Tim Byron, “are people are spending most of their off-work hours monitoring everything to prevent another attack before we’re ready.” He declined to speculate on the source of the attack.
Sheriff Winters is quite concerned about the situation. “This is quite an escalation of conflict, at least for our sleepy little county. I know neighborhood groups in the Bay Area have been fighting for a couple of years now and there have even been a few unintended deaths there, but this is 100 plus miles away and we just don’t expect folks to do things this way. I just hope it isn’t the start of something worse.”